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Do elections hold sheriffs accountable?

Do elections hold sheriffs accountable?
Alex Villanueva, the new Los Angeles County Sheriff, greets members of the force after his swearing-in ceremony in Monterey Park, Calif. on Dec. 3. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

One of the biggest upsets in Southern California politics this election was Alex Villanueva’s defeat of Jim McDonnell for Los Angeles County sheriff. McDonnell, who had the endorsement of nearly the entire Los Angeles political establishment, was the first incumbent L.A. County sheriff to lose in over a century.

Indeed, across the region — pardon the geographically inaccurate cliché — new sheriffs are in town. In June, Ventura County voters elected Bill Ayub, who ran unopposed. In November, Chad Bianco beat incumbent Stan Sniff to become Riverside County’s top cop. In Orange County, Don Barnes will succeed his boss, Sandra Hutchens, who resigned after 10 years in charge of the O.C. Sheriff’s Department.

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This influx of new blood is rare in Southern California’s shrievalty. (“Shrievalty” was Dictionary.com’s word of the day Saturday. You can look it up.) Sheriffs tend to reign longer than many monarchs. Villanueva, who was sworn in Monday, is just the sixth L.A. County sheriff elected to serve in 86 years, for instance; Barnes will be the fifth to represent O.C. in 70 years.

Villanueva claims he’ll buck the bad-sheriff trend. But he explicitly ran as a Democrat instead of as a nonpartisan lawman.


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The California Constitution mandates that all counties elect their sheriffs, instead of leaving it to county supervisors or other politicians to appoint someone to the job. But really, how much do voters know about hiring the head of a massive law enforcement agency in the 21st century? Why make law enforcement officials turn into partisan pols instead of remaining the unbiased public servants they’re supposed to be?

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So as a new Democratic supermajority arrives in the statehouse, as well as an avowedly progressive new governor who is supported by a crusading state attorney general, I say now is the time to question how we pick ’em.

The idea that citizens should elect sheriffs goes back to the Anglo Saxons — you know, the people who thought public executions deterred crime and that the Danes were the epitome of evil on Earth. The thinking was that villagers should pick one of their own to help uphold the law, someone committed to justice and the common folk.

Maybe that system worked in ye olde days before constables and night watchmen. But in modern-day America, sheriffs too often turn into tin-pot dictators with a brass badge and a pocketful of lead.

Basking in the job security that is a four-year term, they become media-hungry dopes (see: former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, longtime L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca) or asleep-at-the-wheel dinosaurs (see: Arpaio, Baca). Jailhouse conditions and crime prevention inevitably become afterthoughts to refuting critics and holding on to power.

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Hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds swirl around their races, much of it supplied by the deputies unions, which are less interested in criminal justice reforms or the best candidate than who will fatten their pensions and stand by even the most trigger-happy of deputies. Favors inevitably get doled out to donors and powerful allies.

What is it about the position that seems to invite corruption? Yet we entrust picking sheriffs to voters, whose track record doesn’t inspire confidence.

Take Kern County. In June, voters there reelected Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who has held office since 2006. All law enforcement officers in Kern County killed people at a higher per capita rate than in any other county in the U.S. in 2015, according to a Guardian series that led to an ongoing investigation by the California attorney general’s office.

Last year, Youngblood wanted the Kern County Board of Supervisors to declare the county a “non-sanctuary” for immigrants in the United States illegally. And earlier this year, 2006 video emerged of Youngblood saying it was cheaper for his department if deputies killed suspects rather than “cripple them.”

Such recklessness didn’t matter to Kern County voters: They reelected Youngblood with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Another argument against elected sheriffs is Barnes, in Orange County. He was first promoted to sergeant, then lieutenant, during the reign of Mike Carona, who went on to be convicted of a felony for witness tampering and served time in federal prison. Barnes spent the last two years as undersheriff to outgoing Sheriff Hutchens, a period that coincided with a jailhouse snitch scandal in which deputies obtained confessions from prisoners illegally, and revelations that jails were illegally recording phone calls between inmates and their lawyers.

Instead of decrying these misdeeds, Barnes promoted his endorsement from Hutchens and dismissed criticisms of his department as fake news. He shouldn’t be trusted with guarding a jar of gummy bears. But with the help of some shiny campaign fliers and slick videos, Barnes is now in charge of the fifth-largest sheriff’s department in the country.

Villanueva claims he’ll buck the bad-sheriff trend. But he explicitly ran as a Democrat instead of as a nonpartisan lawman. And the former deputy didn’t even give McDonnell’s top people a chance, firing 18 of them as soon as he took office and vowing to remake the LASD in his own image. Megalomaniac much?

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I wish all of SoCal’s new sheriffs well. But I urge Sacramento and voters alike to consider more effective ways to hold them accountable. Maybe make them run for reelection more often — every two years, for instance. Or, better yet, don’t let them run at all.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano

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